bullyDisability and Bullying

Bullying has been around  for millennia. People deemed “different” from what society deems as normal typically become bullied at some point in their lives. Bullying, especially for a person or child with a disability, can have severe and lasting psychological and physical implications on its victims.


The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) along with other independent studies reports that as many as 20% of high school students report being bullied at school with as many as 16% reporting cyber bullyin  (bullying via the internet). A third of the students who said they had experienced bullying within the past twelve months indicated that it occurred at least one to two times per month. Females are more likely to be made fun of, insulted or have rumors circulated about them while males are more likely to be physically assaulted with trips, shoves, pushes, or spit upon.

Not all negative interaction between youth is bullying, however. Children also tease other youth. The difference between bullying and teasing is intent. The purpose of teasing is to annoy another person. Bullying, on the other hand, is a show of power A bully will often be physically larger than the victim. In other cases the victim may be deemed less mentally competent or have a physical disability. To be classified as bullying, the bully typically sees him or herself as dominant or a better person and desires some type of control over another person. 

Bullying affects the education of our children. The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children stay home from school each day in an attempt to stay away from bullying. The NEA continues its statistics with an estimated 30% of bullied students have taken a weapon to school for defense. Two-thirds of students who are bullied become bullies themselves thus perpetuating the epidemic.

The problems associated with bullying do not stop at school. A child who is a bully will also tend to cause trouble at home and elsewhere. According to the Stop Bullying Now Foundation, a bully is six times more likely to spend some time in jail by the time they are 24 years old and five times more likely to have a serious criminal record. Often the bullying does not stop as the child ages and if he or she becomes part of the workforce the bullying tends to continue around their co-workers and may cause loss of employment and productivity for both victim and bully.

Bullying & Social Media

Bullying has been brought to national attention recently, thrust there by the suicides of more than a dozen teenagers whose deaths have been attributed to the teen’s inability to handle the stresses of harassment.

In years past bullying was mostly contained to specific areas or times, usually occurring on educational campuses during recess or immediately before and after school. Many children were able to change their routine and bypass the one or two bullies aggravating them. However, with the advent of social media, getting away from bullying is not as simple and perpetuates the harassment 24/7.

Social media has changed the face of bullying in a couple of ways. In the past, a person could reason that a taunt was only one or two people’s opinion. Today, with the anonymous reach of the internet, one person’s hurtful post can be shared thousands of times and garner additional comments as numerous people chime in agreeing with and adding to the victim’s pain. Social media allows people who would otherwise not even know about the situation to contribute to the chaos. The recipient begins to feel humiliation and deep hurt, even believing that the post is true since the taunt is repeated over and over by many different people. As the humiliation and inner pain deepens it can result in psychological and physical changes such as depression, bulimia and ultimately suicide.

Social media has also allowed harassment to continue unabated 24/7. Avoiding one bully may be easy, but when dozens or hundreds of people begin repeating something seen on social media the victim can no longer escape. A post that was originally written on a website that the recipient may not even visit can spread to different websites and be seen by the victim in numerous places including their email and text messages.

Incidents of bullying should be taken seriously by both adults and youth. Teens are driven to suicidal thoughts when school faculty and parents appear unable to intervene or the intervention does not produce desired results. Stopping an incident of bullying may be more difficult than preventing it in the first place.

Bullying & Suicide

At age thirteen, Ryan Halligan was trying to fit in with his peers but his tall, lanky frame and previous academic difficulty made assimilation difficult. He had also been experiencing bullying for the past three years. Although his parents knew of the situation and had provided Ryan with professional counseling they never approached the school or formally notified the staff of the ongoing bullying despite the fact that on at least one occasion the bullying had resulted in a fight. Ryan opposed filing a complaint because he felt it would make the situation worse.

During the summer before starting eighth grade, Ryan befriended a girl who led him to believe she was very interested in him on a personal level. They began emailing and instant messaging. Ryan mentioned his feelings for the girl in a few of these messages. While feigning friendship, the girl re-sent the private messages to her friends who publicized them at school after the summer break. Already suffering from the effects of being bullied for three years, this was insult to injury and Ryan ended his life just a little over a month later.

Online communication between teenagers, whether by social media, instant messaging or email, is the norm. Many youth are too young to understand the meaning of “permanent.” Cyberspace can become the final resting place for anything that enters into it, rising later at unexpected times to haunt the contributor. Cyberspace is the ultimate treasure trove for digging up dirt and using it for bullying.

Cell phones make it easy to snap a picture or video to share. Messaging and email enable youth to divulge feelings with someone the sender feels they can trust. However, trust can be fickle, ebbing and waning with passion and feelings. A picture sent privately in the shroud of trust can be exposed to the public within seconds and whenever the recipient chooses, even years later.

Our children and teens must be repeatedly reminded that shared information is public information. Parents must also take their parenting seriously and keep a close eye on their child’s social media use. Ryan’s parents had a rule that their children’s messages and emails were private. They did not realize the scope of the bullying or that some of it could have been prevented until after Ryan was dead and weeks later were reading his messages where they saw the drama of the past few months of humiliation unfold.

But it is not only the victims of bullying that can be helped with early intervention. The bullies themselves can also be stopped. If parents prevented social media use by bullies then harassing messages would not be posted. Humiliation of victims would be that much more difficult to achieve.

Stop Bullying

There is a silver lining, in the fight to stop bullying. The Stop Bullying Now Foundation reports that schools that have implemented anti-bullying programs have seen significant reductions in the act- as much as 50% fewer incidents.

Often bullying goes unreported because the victim fears it filing a complaint will make the situation worse. This is one of the reasons the Halligans failed to report Ryan’s bullying to the school. Some schools encourage anonymous reporting to combat this fear.

Once reported, however, historically schools have cracked down on bullies with discipline such as suspensions with limited success in stopping the activity. In some states physical altercations can result in children as young as eight years old being arrested and charged with crimes.

Some schools are focusing on prevention instead of just reacting. One program involves peers developing a sense of community. Youth take time to get to know their classmates better, develop an understanding of their differences and, hopefully become friends. Friends are much less likely to bully friends.

Alert parents are the best prevention to bullying. Children who display aggressive or bossy behavior and the inability to get along or empathize with others may also have bullying tendencies and parents should obtain assistance for their child to prevent escalation of behavior.

A child who is being bullied may exhibit feelings of low self-esteem, depression, introversion and an unwillingness to go to school or other locations where school children may congregate. They may also come home with unexplained injuries or damaged personal items.

Parents should never ignore a report of bullying, nor should they attempt to handle the situation on their own. The school should be notified immediately if the incident happened on school property. Off school property incidents should be reported to police. Regardless of the location, the parent should follow up with the administration or authorities to insure the ball is not dropped. Obtaining a list of names of other children who have been bullied by the same child can help the parent contact other parents to develop strength through numbers.

Parents should also closely monitor social media use by their child. Close monitoring will insure that a child is not receiving bully messages, but also is not spreading gossip and contributing to the problem.  Ryan Halligan’s parents realized after Ryan’s suicide that had they monitored his social media and instant messaging they would have realized how serious the bullying he received was and they might have been able to intervene sooner and prevent their son’s death.

Parents can encourage a dialog between them, youth and school administration to reduce bullying in our schools and society as a whole. Action must be taken before more children are driven to suicide in an effort to escape a 24/7 onslaught of needless and unwarranted humiliation.





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